World Cheese Capital still thriving in Plymouth thanks to Dairy Heritage Center

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

PLYMOUTH -  Back in 1949, Leonard Gentine opened a little cheese store in a carriage house behind the family's funeral parlor that he dubbed The Plymouth Cheese Counter.

The Cheese Counter & Dairy Heritage Center is a destination where visitors can learn "why" Plymouth, WI, retains the moniker as Cheese Capital of the World.

While the little cheese store where Gentine packaged cheese is long gone, the elder Gentine's entrepreneurial legacy lives on in the Sargento cheese company he founded with neighbor and friend, Joe Sartori, back in 1953.

Leonard's son, Lee Gentine also had a vision for an old, cream city brick building located in downtown Plymouth not far from where his father first entered the cheese business. This blighted property that once housed a restaurant and ice cream parlor could be brought back to life and become a destination for visitors to learn about the cheese industry heritage that was born in this little town located along the banks of the Mullet River.

"I would bet in the heyday of cheesemaking, there were 100 cheese plants in Sheboygan County and at least a dozen or more in Plymouth," said Lee Gentine who heads up the Plymouth Redevelopment Authority.

This concentration of cheese plants lead to the city being dubbed the Cheese Capital of the World.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s there were billboards on the edge of town proclaiming Plymouth as the Cheese Dairy Center of the World," Gentine said. "We gradually become known as the Cheese Capital of the World and I'm sure that surprises a lot of people who are dubious about our truthfulness."

According to research, Gentine says that it is estimated that 15 percent of all the cheese consumed in the U.S. moved through Plymouth, which is incredible for a small city, Gentine said.

The city was also home to the Wisconsin Cheese Exchange which was chartered in 1918. The nonprofit organization later moved to Green Bay in 1958 and was renamed the National Cheese Exchange in 1975.

While smaller cheese plants disappeared from the city's landscape, Plymouth still retained four major cheese companies: Sargento, Sartori, Masters Gallery Foods and Great Lakes Cheese.

RELATED: Plymouth's Climb to becoming "Cheese Capital of the World"

Less known by the public is the warehousing of cheese in the city. Plymouth was once known as Cheeseville because of all the cheese storage facilities, the processing of cheese and shipping of product throughout the country.

WEDC Secretary Mark Hogan (far right) is joined by local and state government leaders and dairy industry leaders during a visit to The Cheese County & Dairy Heritage Center in Plymouth as part of the Wisconsin Cheese Day tour on June 25. Joining him from left his Jim Sartori of Sartori Cheese; Kerry Henning, WI Cheesemakers Association; Rep. Tyler Vorpagel; DATCP Assistant Deputy Secretary Keith Ripp; Lee Gentine, Plymouth Redevelopment Authority; Jeff Gentine, Masters Gallery; Sen. Devon LeMahieu, Louie Gentine,Sargento;  Plymouth Mayor Don Pohlman and Neal Moegenburg, Great Lakes Cheese.

Showcase city's heritage

Gentine felt that the foreclosed building at 133 E. Mill Street might hold the key to sharing the city's rich cheese heritage with others around the state and beyond. Thus the idea for the Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center was born.

"We created this space because no one was telling the story about what was happening in Plymouth," said Gentine, who helped spearhead the project.

The center highlights Wisconsin's strong cheese-making tradition and heritage and shines the spotlight on the history of cheese-making in Sheboygan County. 

Mark Hogan, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation says the project was helped along with a $100,000 community development investment grant and historic tax credits to help renovate the 193 year old building. The project also received support from local community and business partners.

An employee explains to WEDC Secretary Mark Hogan (right) how the interactive table top display at The Cheese Counter & Dairy Heritage Center (center)  is used to provide visitors with the history of Plymouth's association with cheese as Lee Gentine (left) chairman of the Plymouth Redevelopment Authority looks on.

"It's great to come and see the finished product," Hogan said during his stop in Plymouth as part of the Wisconsin Cheese Day tour on June 25. "We couldn't be more proud to have supported and been a part of this process."

Hogan says the state of Wisconsin takes the dairy industry very seriously.

"We have close to 80,000 people who are employed in it, and it accounts for $44 billion that is contributed to the state's economy each year, and that doesn't take into consideration the supply chain (that provide inputs into the industry)," he said. "Since 2011, WEDC has awarded $31 million to 29 dairy companies for projects that have resulted in the creation of more than 1,000 jobs around the state and $783 million in capital investment."

Gentine says he wanted the center to not only be educational but colorful and appealing to kids. Thematically designed as a diverse retail store with a food counter (named The Cheese Counter after Gentine's dad's first store), the center also boasts fun interactive displays that test your knowledge of the dairy industry, take selfies where visitors can "adorn" themselves in digital cheesewear, and whimsical products to satisfy the hard core cheese aficionado - cheese socks, head gear, games and more.

Cheese and more

The Cheese Counter also provides guests with grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese made with signature cheeses from Sargento, Sartori, Masters Gallery and Great Lakes Cheese.

Kerry Henning (left) 1st Vice President of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association is introduced by Plymouth Mayor Don Pohlman during a visit to The Cheese County and Dairy Heritage Center in Plymouth as part of the Wisconsin Cheese Day tour.

Books tracing the state's agricultural industry can also be found along with historical items of interest including an old phone booth from the train depot, dairy white uniform worn by an employee at Borden.

The center also pays tribute to the foundation of Plymouth's claim to cheese fame. A timeline stretching across the wall highlights the milestones, including the founding of S&R Cheese Corporation in 1939 that would later become Sartori Company.

Sartori CEO Jim Sartori says over the years the company has won many international awards for its cheese but attributed much of the success to the Wisconsin family farms.

"They make all that wonderful milk for us and are really the backbone of the dairy industry," Sartori said.

Platform for farmers

The fruits of area farmers labors are evidenced by the diverse array of cheese filling the coolers. In addition to the Plymouth Big Four, there are cheeses from cheese plants all across Wisconsin as well as some sausage products and more. 

This array of Wisconsin  products shows the state's diverse offerings from the cheese industry.

"Public-private partnerships are always an issue of debate in the Legislature but this center speaks directly to the impact a program like this can have on the downtown," said Rep. Tyler Vopagel who represents Wisconsin's 27th Assembly District. "You don't have to go very far around here to find someone who has a connection to the cheese industry."

Cedar Grove dairy farmer and recently elected President of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, Brody Stapel, says facilities like The Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center in Plymouth and the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center set to open in late July are prime examples of how the agricultural industry in Wisconsin can help to promote itself and educate consumers.

"These are great places to help tell that story but we as an organization (which represents nearly 800 dairy farmers in nine Midwestern states), have encouraged our members to promote their industry by telling their stories. But you know farmers, they like to stay home and do what they do best," Stapel said. "We're not always the best storytellers but you don't know until you try. These places do a great job in providing the overhead view of our industry, but its up to us to let people know what's going on at the farm."

Celebrating success

Other government leaders criss-crossing the state on Monday included Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Sheila Harsdorf, and Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett who visited 13 cheese companies and facilities as part of the second annual Wisconsin Cheese Day.

Gov. Scott Walker meets with constituents while visiting the new $95 million Great Lakes Cheese packaging plant in Wausau.

The 180,000 square foot facility is still in the construction phase and is slated to open in January 2019.

"Wisconsin is America's Dairyland – and since cheese is Wisconsin's official dairy product, it is only fitting that we visit cheese producers throughout the state to thank them for the contributions they are making to their industry and the state's economy," said Governor Scott Walker. "Wisconsin is home to 8,500 dairy farms, the vast majority of which are family-owned. Wisconsin Cheese Day is about celebrating the successes of these companies as well as the family-supporting jobs they create right here in Wisconsin."

Also taking part in the tour are WEDC Deputy Secretary and COO Tricia Braun, DATCP Assistant Deputy Secretary Keith Ripp and Kaitlyn Riley, the state’s new Alice in Dairyland. They are being joined by leaders from the dairy and cheese industry, local and regional economic development organizations, state legislators and the University of Wisconsin.

“Through innovative research and new product development, Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to create high-quality, award-winning cheese for consumers worldwide,” said DATCP Secretary Harsdorf.

– Dale Gallenberg, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at UW-River Falls discussing the campus Dairy Pilot Plant Renovation project which will start next month (July). The event took place in the old Dairy Plant, which was emptied of equipment at the end of the school year in preparation for the renovation project.

The companies and cheese facilities that are part of the tour and the state officials taking part are: Great Lakes Cheese, Wausau: Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Gehl Foods, Germantown: Nordic Creamery, Westby; UW-River Falls Dairy Pilot Plant, River Falls; Shullsburg Creamery, Shullsburg;Chalet Cheese Co-op, Monroe; Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee; Emmi Roth, Platteville; Eau Galle Cheese Factory, Durand; Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, Ellsworth; Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center, Plymouth and Schreiber Foods, Green Bay.

The state is partnering with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), a non-profit organization representing 98 cheese manufacturing, processing, and marketing companies and more than 500 of their supplier partners in the industry, to celebrate Wisconsin Cheese Day.

“Wisconsin’s rich history of cheesemaking is also a key component to strengthening its economic future,” said John Umhoefer, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director. “As new manufacturing and processing plants open and others increase their production, our industry is adding family-supporting jobs and boosting rural communities. Today, we thank all those people — at the Capitol, in the classroom, in research and development labs, and right at the vat — whose work has given us great reason to celebrate.”